Paris tries new campus reforms

The French government yesterday announced a "rolling reform" of its much-criticised higher education sector, intended to reduce the drop-out and failure rate, improve access to higher education and make better use of funds.

The Education Minister, Francois Bayrou, set out the principles of the changes in a speech to students and politicians in the Sorbonne, in Paris.

Among the reforms are proposed improvements to the student grant to take greater account of individual and family circumstances, attempts to better match students and courses and a restructuring of university appointments and the academic career ladder to reduce the number of unemployed PhDs and doctoral candidates. However, no reforms will be introduced until the academic year 1997-98 at the earliest.

Any form of selection for higher education has been shelved. But more information is to be supplied to pupils about the failure rate on courses and employment prospects, in the hope that their choice of subjects and universities will be better informed.

Student numbers in France have almost doubled over the past decade, with the only formal qualification required for a university place being the Baccalaureat, an approximate equivalent to A-levels. University facilities are overcrowded and often poorly maintained, even at the Sorbonne. The drop-out rate has risen to 20 per cent in the first year, and the failure rate after four or five years approaches 50 per cent in some technological disciplines.

Tackling the education system has been a political hot potato for French governments. In the past five years alone, four attempts at reform - the introduction of selection for higher education, changes in the grant system, provision for private schools and a further attempt at higher-education reform - have been abandoned after resistance by students and teachers.

Last autumn, protests against student overcrowding and shortages of teachers and facilities were halted only when Mr Bayrou was given more funds to fill empty posts, improve libraries and laboratories and set up a system of special envoys to all universities to examine the problems.

Jacques Chirac set the overhaul of French education as a priority for his presidency more than a year ago. He even had the constitution amended to provide for a promised referendum on the subject. By the first anniversary of his presidency last month, however, neither the reform nor the referendum had appeared, and Mr Chirac was driven to criticise Mr Bayrou by name for the apparent slowness with which his ministry was moving.